When you look at the bric-a-brac collecting dust at your pad—those tacky souvenirs from your trip to Mexico, family photos you inherited when Aunt Betty died, books you bought years ago but never got around to reading—do you find yourself wondering, "Why do I have this crap?" Artist Christine Clark poses that question, in a fashion, in her elegant installation, Collective Object, at Nine Gallery. Clark has fashioned 62 objects out of powder-coated steel wire, welded into shapes resembling vases, decanters, sculptures, gourds and masks—the sorts of things you'd keep in a curio cabinet for years, gradually forgetting where you bought them, when and why. Each of Clark's objects—immaculately white and lined up side by side on white, wall-mounted shelves—looks similar to the object to its right and left, but there's enough variation between the pieces such that, once you get 10 or 11 objects in either direction, each shape has transmogrified into something unrecognizable from its original reference point. There is something simultaneously poetic and scientific about the relentless, stepwise progression from one form to the next, something that puts one in mind of Platonic ideals and John Donne poems. Like the incremental progression of life itself, Clark's exacting forms are both romantic and tragic. They are ciphers and shells, wiry and porous; even the ones that look like vases or pitchers could not for a second hold water. They are empty inside, save for the associations, symbols and sentiments we fill them with—until we have forgotten their meanings, or are ourselves forgotten.
Impermanence is also a theme in the work of the late Jay Steensma (1941-1994) at Pulliam Gallery. Steensma often painted on paper bags, turning this highly disposable material into timeless reflections on landscape, animal life and nature itself. Steensma's paintings of birds exude eerie charm, rendered iconically in a crude but effective neo-primitivist style. His mountainscape, Love Butte, speaks to the simultaneous reverence for, and fear of, nature. Confident, mysterious and sinister, these works demonstrate why Steensma earned a place in the pantheon of historic Northwest artists alongside Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and their ilk. We are here but for a moment, his talismanlike paintings seem to whisper, but the mountain remains for an eon.
SEE IT: Christine Clark at Nine Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Closes Feb. 27. Impermanence at Pulliam Gallery, 929 NW Flanders St., 228-6665. Closes Feb. 26.